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Custodian of dunes and caretaker of beach vegetation


If R.B. Johnson doesn't already have the nickname of "Mr. Dune," he should.

Johnson, 54, rises early each morning to walk the beach, water new shoots of sea oats, stake off areas where native beach plants are struggling to grow and pick up trash left or blown into the dunes.

When he isn't planting ground-covering sea oats, railroad vines and panicgrass, seeding delicate flowers like beach morning-glories, sunflowers and blanketflower or transplanting fledgling sturdy inkberry shrubs, Johnson is often poring over his collection of hundreds of books on dune preservation and dune vegetation.

He points to a line of railroad vines, which he calls "pioneer plants," that capture sand and seeds blown by onshore winds as one of the most important dune-friendly plants.

"They like to run straight to the water. When the sand flows around them, they help to stabilize the beach. Then other seeds blow up and find a protected place to root," Johnson explains.

This is the start of the dune-building process. As deeper-rooted plants like sea oats and inkberry establish themselves, they, too, accumulate sand and help to build the dunes.

The dunes themselves, once mature, tend to be self-rebuilding after inevitable storms.

Tropical Storm Josephine nearly wiped out the dunes in 1996 as it lingered and pounded the Gulf Coast.

"Everything I had planted pretty much got wiped out," Johnson recalls. "The storm did leave a ridge where plants were able to regrow."

He and other volunteers in town helped, as well, uncovering buried sea oats and replanting vegetation along the decimated dune line.

Today, that storm-damaged dune line is still visible behind higher frontal dunes.

"Dunes are not a permanent barrier," Johnson stresses. "They are nature's flexible mechanism to build up the beach and rebuild it after storms. I think our dunes are now wide and consistent enough to rebuild themselves, even if we had another Josephine."

Planting sea oats

This self-taught Florida dune expert is often seen as the go-to guy when you want to know how to create and grow dunes along the Gulf of Mexico, often advising other beach cities from Treasure Island to Belleair Beach.

For years, he served on Indian Rocks Beach's former Beautification Board and, as its chairman, he often led sea oat planting parties where groups of resident volunteers spread across the city's 2-mile-long beach to plant sea oats and other native beach vegetation donated by Pinellas County.

That role continued over the years until about 10 years ago when the city's dune system was considered "mature" enough not to need regular botanical assistance to thrive.

Johnson's long-time career as a beach gardener began in 1989 when he first moved to a small beach cottage owned by his grandfather, Carl L. Moseley, a Tampa attorney who, beginning in the 1930s, had acquired a large number of properties in Indian Rocks Beach.

One of those properties was a 1,041-foot fishing pier — then the longest such pier in the entire state — that was destroyed in 1985 by Hurricane Elena.

After the hurricane, Johnson, who lived in Tampa at the time, began coming to the beach to help clean up and eventually manage his grandfather's properties, including the cottage he would live in just a few years later. Today, he lives in a house he built next door to that cottage.

"Elena had completely washed out the beach and water was right at our seawall. I was cleaning the yard at the cottage and began looking for plants more attractive than sand spurs," Johnson recalls.

Used to doing research, the Rice University graduate discovered Green Seasons Nursery in Parrish, a Manatee County wholesaler of sea oats and other native Florida beach plants.

On Nov. 10, 1989, Johnson spent $16.95 for some sea oats and other native vegetation to plant in his yard,

He also some of those plants put along the base of his seawall, but the tides and recurring storms repeatedly washed them out.

It was not until the early 1990s when a federal-state-county renourishment project restored the city's nonexistent beach to a 300-foot wide expanse of sand.

"It was a big white tabletop. There was no vegetation on it at all," Johnson remembers.

He and some other beach property owners began planting sea oats on the virgin beach, an effort supplemented in 1992 by a sea oat program sponsored by Pinellas County.

"We had planting parties at every beach access point where native vegetation was planted in squares 50 feet wide," Johnson says.

Any plants left over were distributed to beach property owners. After Johnson decided to plant his a bit farther out from his seawall, he noticed a dune begin to build.

Shelter for sea turtles

Today, the dune ecosystem beyond his seawall is nearly 100 feet wide, filled with a variety of ground-covering flowering plants, thick shrubs and the waving tops of graceful sea oats. Interspersed are the tracks of seabirds who forage for seeds and small holes revealing the presence of burrowing ghost crabs.

A few hundred feet south of Johnson's beach house are stakes and orange tape outlining a turtle nest, one of a record-number 35 nests so far on the city's beach. In the past, the city averaged only 20 nests a year during turtle season that lasts from late spring until early fall.

"The dunes are what the turtles like," says Johnson. "When they reach the dunes they know they are safely far enough from the water to lay their eggs and the height of the dunes blocks the lights from the condos and cottages."

The dunes are "great turtle nesting territory," Johnson says, as he proudly points to each plant, naming it and describing its role in maintaining the dune ecosystem.

During the past nearly three decades, he estimates he has distributed "untold amounts" of beach wildflower seeds, as well as grasses and shrubs up and down the city's beach.

"It's really just a hobby I have continued over the years," Johnson insists.

Oh, and his "real" job? Johnson is the six-term mayor of Indian Rocks Beach.

Custodian of dunes and caretaker of beach vegetation 07/07/16 [Last modified: Thursday, July 7, 2016 12:50pm]
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